In the writing kitchen, what kind of cook are you?

Clare’s post yesterday about NaNoWriMo reminded me of something I wrote awhile back when I was blogging over at Killer Hobbies (KH is a great blog about mysteries that incorporate crafts, by the way). Back then I’d never heard of NaNoWriMo (maybe the contest hadn’t even been invented yet), but I’ve always known I could never survive a rapid writing marathon. Here’s a recap:

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Top Chef on TV this week, but my two obsessions in life—writing and food—have started to converge.

Because I’m on a killer deadline right now, I’ve been doing some stressed-out musing about my personal writing practices. And I’ve decided that as a writing “chef,” I am a slow cooker. You could even call me a crock-pot.

My forward progress through the first draft of a novel is chunky and irregular, like an ice cutter breaking its way across a packed-solid river. There’s the occasional hang-up on the ice as I stall for a few days, working and reworking difficult sections. My average forward progress rarely exceeds a page a day. Barely tugboat speed, in other words.

On the plus side, I write every day. Every day, at the same time of day: before dawn. Over the past year, I’ve missed only two days of writing—once when I was stuck in an airplane (when I fly, I can’t concentrate on anything more challenging than a Danielle Steel novel). And once when I was retching my guts into the toilet from a bout of stomach flu.

As a writer who produces at this relatively stately pace, I reel in shock and awe when I read that some writers can tap out thousands of words a day. In the great writing kitchen of life, these people must be the flash fryers .

My best friend from college is a flash fryer. As a student she redefined the time-honored, collegiate art of procrastination. She’d wait until well past midnight to start a paper that was due at eight a.m. the next morning. Finally, in a Selectric burst of typing and crumpled pages, she’d bang out her essay. And receive an A. One time she procrastinated so long on a paper about Chaka, King of the Zulus, that it endangered her graduation status. We still call it “Chaka time” when one of us is desperately behind on a deadline. (These days, my friend is an uber-successful sitcom writer. And still procrastinating, but man her shows are funny!)

I admire the flash fryers, but I am resigned to chugging along at my crock-pot writing pace. I have to go back (and back, and back) over sections, layering in changes, rethinking descriptors, building connections, to make the prose sing. Or at least, warble.

I figure that no matter what our cooking style, all writers are heading toward the same goal: to serve up sizzling prose to the reader’s table.

What about you? Are you a slow cooker, fast fryer, or something in-between?

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18 thoughts on “In the writing kitchen, what kind of cook are you?

  1. In between. I write (almost) every day when I’m writing, a predetermined amount. When drafting, usually a single spaced page, two on days off work. Some days a little more if I’m on a roll, but rarely a lot more, as I find I’m better set up for the next day if I left a few things unsaid the day before. Makes it easier to pick up where I left off.

    I do leave myself notes sometimes, and there always an outline to work from. The truth is, there’s quite a bit of every day spent writing in my head. What i do in my office is sometimes more typing than writing, as I already know what i want to say.

  2. Dana, I love those moments you describe as “writing in my head.” For example, I will hear the ending sentence of a paragraph I was struggling with, and suddenly hear a new version that I repeat several times to make sure I remember it. Or I’ll write it down on a scrap of paper. I always plan to carry index cards with me for “writing on the run,” but in reality they’re seldom at hand.

  3. 1st thing that came to mind when I read this and thought of my own writing process was the old Apache way of baking mescal. Slower than a slow cooker.

    They dig a pit deep and wide, line w/wood, then flat stones, set it on fire, then a layer of wet grass, mescal, wet grass, a thick layer of dirt, and more fire.

    I start out laying the trench with lots of research, b/c I need to know (and want to know) all the details whether i use them or not. Then there’s the slow process of laying out the plot which for me takes a while, then ages to write it, scrap it, then write it again. Then some little research detail I missed will crop up and force me to go back and redo a section and on and on I go.

    It’ll be nice if one day I write like fast food. 😎

  4. I sometimes go for days without writing a single word,then I’ll sit down for few hours and crank out several thousand. I think that most of my best stuff comes from living the story in my head between those times when I’m actually typing. Once I’ve done that, all I have to do is figure out how to relay what I see in my head to the reader via the text.

  5. I’m more of a sear and braise type writer. I have explosive beginnings where ideas boil out of me and I can barely type fast enough to get the ideas onto the screen. I then simmer for awhile before cranking up the heat and writing again. Once the piece has stewed for awhile, I am able to go back and reduce the words to form tight sentences. The tough meatiness of the story becomes tender and succulent with time.

    And…since I am a food writer and chef, this approach seems to work.

    http://www.victoriaallman.com

  6. All these food and cooking discussions are making me hungry, lol. BK, I love your description of the Apache method of baking Mescal. Timothy, I agree that those “in our head” times are when the real creative process goes on. Then we’re simply transcribing and tweaking. Victoria, I think all writers love those explosive moments you describe. It gets harder when we have to reduce the sauce to get the meat cooked right. Okay, Kathryn, block that metaphor!

  7. Kathryn, I think I mentioned back in a previous blog post that I write like someone sporadically firing a machine gun: large quantities in short spurts. So if I had to compare it to cooking, it would be like a Ruth’s Chris chef cooking a steak: extremely high temperature for a short period of time.

  8. I write like I’m on a never ending diet of S’Mores. Each scene is a marshmallow, and I want ’em hot. Occasionally one catches on fire, and I let it go, loving the light. The chocolate is my plot and the graham crackers my structure.

    I mean, it all comes down to telling a story around the campfire, doesn’t it?

  9. As a recovering compulsive over-eater, I hereby declare you the winner of the foodie metaphors, Jim! “Hot as a blazing marshmallow at the end of a sharp stick”–how’s that for a great blurb!

  10. I think I’m like Joe – fast and furious – then inevitably it’s a long slow cook after that as I attempt not to burn the whole dish!

  11. I think I may be a bbq gal. Open flames give air, life, and movement. You still need to turn the temperature down a bit so it doesn’t over cook and become overdone charcoal, but a little sizzling flame on your hiney can keep things exciting. And everyone loves the smell of bbq. Besides a few grill marks never hurt anyone, they only add to the overall essence and experience. And in the end don’t we all just want to be finger-lickin’ good?

  12. I’m like an oven, going at a steady temperature, until the meal is cooked. My writing schedule calls for five pages a day or a chapter a week, and I keep at that steady pace until the book is done. This means my actual writing time may be six months, but it doesn’t account for plotting and characterization at the forefront, or polishing/revisions at the back end. That adds more months so I’m more comfortable with ten months as an average, with extra time for vacations, etc. I admire those writers who can turn out two or three books a year, but that’ll never be me.

  13. Man…this article has induced a craving for crispy fried chicken and smoked meats.

    When marinating or creating sauces time is of the essence. The ingredients must blend together and allow the chemical reactions to foment and build the right flavour. But leaving a sauce to sit too long can make it bitter and unpalatable. Once the meat is in the marinate it has to sit for a while as well, but not too long or it loses the meat flavour. But when marinated for the right length of time, the flame is lit and the meat is cooked in a flash of heat and smoke and sizzle.

    That’s how I write. Long periods of think, imagine, and ponder follow by a flaming hot moment of furiously throwning the words onto paper. In the end is a meal that tastes and smells fresh, but leaves one with the after taste of something well thought out.

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